JJan Williams, author and analyst, calls James Clyburn the politician of the year. Jon Meacham, a presidential historian, says he was the most important person of 2020. “Without Jim Clyburn backing Joe Biden, Donald Trump would really be president, not just in his own mind,” Meacham said. Real time with Bill Maher on the HBO channel.
The black congressman’s vote of confidence in Biden during the Democratic primaries set the stage for a return worthy of Lazarus. It was a transformative moment in a transformative year in which the flame of American democracy seemed as fragile as a candle on the altar of Church of San Juan Bautista in Hopkins, South Carolina, which is where the story begins.
It was around 11:30 a.m. M. From February 21 and Clyburn, a political giant in the Palmetto estate, he had arrived early for the funeral of his longtime accountant, James White. “I walked down the church aisle to pay my respects and as I turned to walk away from the coffin, my eyes met the eyes of this lady sitting in the front row of the church and she beckoned me to come closer “. recalls the 80-year-old man on the phone in an interview with The Guardian.
“I walked over and he said, ‘I need to ask you a question, and if you don’t want anyone to hear the answer, lean in and whisper in my ear.’ Then he asked me: ‘Who are you going to vote for in this primary?’ I leaned in and told him I was going to vote for Joe Biden. She threw her head back, looked at me and said, ‘I needed to hear that. And this community needs to hear from you. ‘
The woman in question was Jannie Jones, a 76-year-old church usher who, like Clyburn, is African-American. Her question made him realize that he couldn’t keep quiet. He says, “I continued my trip to Charleston and I couldn’t get her out of my head and what she was telling me.”
The words of another woman were whispering to him as well. Emily, Clyburn’s wife of 58 years, had died only five months earlier. “My wife had told me before she passed away that she thought our best bet to defeat Donald Trump was Joe Biden.”
Two days later, Clyburn met with Biden and told him that he intended to make a public endorsement that “would create a surge.” He did so a few days later and followed up with video ads, robocalls and messages on black radio stations. It worked. Biden, who was ruled out by experts after defeats in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, won South Carolina with 48.6% of the vote, well ahead of Bernie Sanders with 19.8%.
It was the first state where African American voters had a meaningful voice and spoke clearly. Three days later, Biden won 10 of the 14 states on Super Tuesday, becoming an unlikely “comeback” kid and effectively clinching the nomination.
When the 2020 stories are written, you can judge that he was the safe, wise, if unspectacular choice. Biden knew the moment as a general election candidate, not just as a firm hand and empathic figure during the coronavirus pandemic, but as a moderate immune to the kinds of sexist and racist attacks and socialist scaremongering that his Democratic rivals would have suffered.
The former vice president proved his skeptics wrong and beat Trump by more than 7 million votes, a margin of almost 4.5% – higher than all but one presidential election in the last 20 years. But none of this seemed obvious in February. “I felt vindicated after so many people on social media gave me a hard time for endorsing it,” says Clyburn.
“There were people who thought he had committed heresy or something like that and when he won, I felt good about the victory, but when I started to see all the experts saying, looking back, Joe Biden was the only Democrat who could have defeated Donald. Trump, that made me feel doubly good. Twenty twenty in hindsight. “
After four tantalizing days of counting the votes, Biden was declared the winner and, along with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, delivered a victory speech in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. He said: “Especially at those times when this campaign was at its lowest point, the African-American community came back to defend me. They always support me and I will have yours. “
Clyburn, the number three Democrat in the House of Representatives, takes him at his word. “I think he will. I’m certainly going to work hard to make sure he remembers what he said.”
The election result was also hailed as a near-death experience for democracy, with many commentators suggesting that American institutions could not have survived a second Trump term. Clyburn did more than most to sound the alarm.
“He is an autocrat. I’ve said before that I don’t think I’m thinking of leaving office. Two years ago I compared him to Mussolini and I fell ill for that. However, when he left that hospital [following treatment for coronavirus] and he walked up to Truman’s balcony at the White House and stood up, took off his mask and looked outside, the next morning I saw people on TV referring to that as a ‘Posture of Mussolini’ “.
Democracy prevailed, Clyburn believes, but Trump has done “tremendous damage” to America’s position around the world. Can Biden repair it? “I think it can and I think it will.”
But the election was bittersweet for Democrats. The party suffered disappointing losses in the House, prompting bitter recriminations from moderates and progressives, and now has only a slim majority. Clyburn, the whip of the majority, suggests that the setback had more to do with campaign strategy than ideology.
“I think we did not reinvest enough in what I call door-to-door probing. The Republicans had a very good ground operation. We didn’t have the ground operation that we should have. We introduce the people now: Trump won Michigan by 10,000 votes four years ago, but this time Biden won it by 150,000 votes, but there are areas where we would have done better in the final elections if we had invested in those communities with scrutiny. “
Democrats suffered defeats in New York state, Clyburn argues, because the state was so safe for Biden in the presidential race that very little investment was made for negative-voting candidates. A similar problem may have occurred in California, a Biden stronghold where Republicans won seats. By contrast, investments in Georgia helped Democrats invest a district.
Clyburn also believes that the phrase “defunding the police,” popularized during this summer’s uprising against racial injustice, hurt candidates like Jaime Harrison, who lost his bid to oust Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham in the US election. Senate in the home state of Clyburn.
The congressman, a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, shares Barack Obama’s view that, while it does not mean abolishing police departments, the phrase runs the risk of scaring away the voters the party needs. “People have armed ‘defunding the police’ against us,” he says.
Do you think the momentum of the protests can be maintained? “Yes, I think it can be and I think it will be. There is a tremendous amount of support across the board for Black Lives Matter and it’s quite interesting when I see articles written that tell me that the entire Black Lives Matter agenda is being widely supported, and then I see in the next breath a they can’t defend themselves. the dangers of a phrase like ‘Defund the police’ ”.
Biden’s halo as a savior of democracy is likely to wear off within minutes of his inauguration as he faces multiple crises and becomes a target for both Republicans and the progressive left. “It won’t take long,” Clyburn admits, before adding a historical perspective that includes his late colleague John Lewis, whom he met 60 years ago.
“We are praising John Lewis today, but before he was not appreciated by everyone. We have a full vacation for Martin Luther King Jr, but he was killed because not everyone worshiped him before. Joe Biden will have his detractors, but I think he can do what the country needs. “
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